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Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, New York: Part 3 Of A 3 Part Series
To conclude this three-part article, we look at the evolution of the Italian heritage and community that began and grew in East Harlem as Italian immigrants moved to New York and assimilated into the community. In part 1 we looked at the neighborhood of Italian Harlem and its people, in part 2 we looked at the importance of family, the birth of the Italian community and the church for that community, now we look at the all important legacy of the religious celebration that defines this community.
Italian Harlem Colony
The first Italian immigrants arrived in East Harlem as early as 1878 and settled near 115th Street. They came from Polla in the province of Salerno. The first Italians in East Harlem worked as strike breakers for Irish American contractor JD Crimmins. They were working on the First Avenue Trolley Tracks when the strikes happened, infuriating the Irish workers. As a result, the striking Irish workers were fired. There was great tension between the dismissed workers and the newly arrived Italians. They lived side by side within blocks of each other in East Harlem. There were also numerous incidents of gang violence between the Irish and Italians over turf issues.
In the 1880s, New Yorkers were interested in East Harlem. East Harlem was moved by hordes of Italian immigrants fleeing the overcrowding of the legendary Mulberry Bend area and its filthy cramped apartments. Italians from the regions of Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, and Sicily overtook lower Manhattan and established communities here in the last quarter of the 19th century. Italians from the same villages and towns huddled together in niches, limiting their associations mostly to families and villagers, and set up stakes along the streets of East Harlem. On 112th Street there was a settlement of Barista; On East 107th Street between First Avenue and the East River were people from Sarno (near Naples); then on East 100th Street, between First and Second Avenues, were the Sicilians from Santiago. A small group of Genovese settled south of 106th Street. The Neapolitans settled in the space between 106th and 108th streets. Also Piscento northerners lived on East 100th Street and Calabrians settled on 109th Street. They were satisfied. In this new neighborhood, they could use their own language, eat their own ethnic foods and practice their customs and religion as they did in their homeland, even though there were other nationalities living in the neighboring streets.
A celebration of religious festivals in East Harlem
1) Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
July 16th is the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Harlem, Italy. It has been the largest participant in the entire United States. “Its popularity was assured when in 1903 Pope Leo XIII bestowed upon the statue a set of golden crowns (one for the Madonna and one for the Child Jesus) and declared the church a basilica, shared throughout the United States only by Our Lady of Perpetual Help in New Orleans.”
By the height of the 1930s, the population of Italian Harlem had reached about 100,000 or more. Even in the Depression years, this was the largest colony of Italian Americans ever to attend the festivities. Therefore, combining the local community with people on pilgrimages from as far away as New Mexico, California, Florida and even Canada provided a total of about 500,000 participants for the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This annual parade is the proudest outward expression of Italian Harlem’s cultural identity.
Since the 1960s, Our Lady of Mount Carmel celebrations have steadily declined as Italians moved out of East Harlem. Nevertheless, the passion is still there and brings Italians back year after year to worship together as they once did. Friendships are rekindled, long-lost neighbors are reunited, and neighborhood memories of an era that once existed are rekindled. They don’t just come for the feast, they return to the church to participate in novenas prayed in Italian or to celebrate a special mass for the dead. Over the years, a new group of participants has given impetus to the celebration of “Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” sponsored and produced by Italian Americans. Haitians have made the pilgrimage to East Harlem from many areas in New York and other states. These Haitians know the location of the “Our Lady of Mount Carmel” church. Many of them visit the church for their French Mass held on the first Saturday of every month. They seek spiritual guidance and the intervention of the Blessed Mother on their behalf. “Elizabeth McAlister, a Yale graduate researcher who has studied the festival, says the growing number of Haitians who have attended since the 1980s see Madonna through both Roman Catholic and Afro-Haitian traditions.”
Last year the procession was the 126th and more are coming.
2) Feast of Giglio di Sant’ Antonio
This celebration was originally started in the 1880s in the town of Brusciano, Italy, which is about 20 miles outside of Naples. Francisco Vivolo, a local resident of Brusciano, prayed to Sant’Antonio (Saint Anthony) to help heal his terminally ill son. He promised Saint Anthony that he would build a Gigli in his honor and dance with it in the streets of Brusciano if his prayer was answered, in the same way that San Paolino di Nola was honored in the city of Nola, Italy. Vivolo’s prayers were answered and thus Gigli Dancing in Brusciano began.
In the early 1900s, many families from the town of Brusciano moved to East Harlem, New York, bringing with them cherished traditions, including the annual Giglio dance festival in honor of Sant’Antonio.
“For those unfamiliar with the Giglio (pronounced JEEL-YO) – it’s a 75- to 85-foot-tall wooden structure that weighs about 8,000 pounds and has a face decorated with beloved saints and colorful flowers. The Giglio sits as a multi-piece band with multiple singers. Music is an instrumental part of Giglio’s dance, as it inspires the Lifters (also known as “Paranza” in Italian) to take up Giglio and the band and dance it in harmony with the music being played.” Lifting Giglio requires more than 100 uniform jobs.
Members of the Vivolo family have been involved with Giglio Feasts in East Harlem for several years.
Francisco Vivolo had three sons and two daughters. Of the boys, Rocco was the oldest, Gioacchino was the second boy, and then there was Antonio, the youngest child, who got better. According to Francisco Vivolo’s grandson, Phil Bruno of East Harlem, Rocco was the first to come to America. He lived on Mulberry Street. He then moved to an apartment at 348 East 106th street sometime in 1906. Then Phil Bruno’s grandfather, Gioacchino, came in December 1907. Gioacchino sent his wife and children and settled in an apartment at 2053 1st Avenue. He lived there until 1958, when the tenements were demolished. Phil Bruno also lived in the same apartment. Soon after, the first Giglio party was held on 106th Street in 1909. Gioaccino became the first Capo Paranza (leader of the lifters). It is the most respected position in the Giglio party. Several years later, in 1918, the Bruscian society was founded, with Rocco as its president. The Giglio festival was celebrated for the first time under the administration of the Bruscian club in 1918.
Sometime in the 20’s and 30’s, many Giglios were built and paraded along 106th Street during the party along with the boat. The Bruscianese Society, which held a party on 106th Street, was not able to do so until the mid-1930s.
The statue of Saint Anthony was sent to Phil Bruno’s grandparents by a relative who was a priest in Brusciano. This statue was used in celebrations from 1925 to 1955. It is still in his family. Phil Bruno’s grandparents sat in front of the statue during every party held on 106th Street along with his mother, aunt and uncle until 1955, the last Giglio Party on 106th Street. Then, in 1957, the Giglio party moved to 108th Street, where it continued until 1971. After a 29-year hiatus, the party returned in 2000, and has continued to be celebrated annually ever since. It is as strong and vibrant as ever. I should know, I was there in 2010.
Carrying on the family tradition, Phil Bruno’s passion for the old town and its celebrations is palpable. She has been and still is Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Holy Name Society member. He attends monthly communion meetings at Mt. Carmel at 115th street. Phil is also a board member and Capo during the party, as well as the lieutenant of the East Harlem Giglio Society, which is responsible for restoring the Giglio.
Among the many contributors who have made both parties a success, Bob Maida is by far one of the biggest. His love, tireless energy and passion for the old neighborhood is strong and infectious. Bob Maida is a volunteer photographer who has willingly and generously given his time and money to photograph the party with real feelings that cannot be expressed in words. Year after year, these images have been added to the already bulging coffers of Italian Harlem memorabilia.
Although many of the former residents of Italian Harlem have passed on, their children and grandchildren continue to uphold the memories of the old neighborhood, preserving the culture and bonds of friendship that have been passed down from generation to generation. They have experienced the best of both worlds, proudly preserving elements of their culture and celebrating the heritage that their ancestors once brought to their newly adopted home.
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